The Mythology Behind Simhasana (Lion Pose)

August 28, 2014    BY Zo Newell

The Story 

Once there was an asura, a demon, named Hiranyakashipu, who swore eternal enmity to Lord Vishnu. He performed remarkable yogic austerities until he attracted the attention of Brahma, the creator. “What boon do you want?” asked Brahma, wearily—knowing that this person was not practicing for the sheer joy of it.

“Give me immortality!” said Hiranyakashipu.

“Not possible,” said Brahma. “Choose again.”

“Then, Lord, let me not meet death from any living creature created by you. Let me have no rival. Let me not die during the day or during the night, inside a house or outside of a house, not on the ground and not in the sky, not from a weapon, not from any human being, deva, or animal, not at the hands of any demigod or demon. Make me lord over all creation. Furthermore, give me all the siddhis and mystic powers attained by the practice of yoga and of long austerities, for these can never be lost.”

“Done,” said Brahma. “And good luck with all that.”

Drunk with power, Hiranyakashipu proceeded to wreak havoc across the whole creation by claiming everything for himself.

Despite his demon ancestry, Prahlada was born with a devotional nature and a thirst for the divine.

He had a son, Prahlada. As so often happens in families, the son and the father had different outlooks. Despite his demon ancestry, Prahlada was born with a devotional nature and a thirst for the divine. He grew into a great bhakta whose chosen deity was his father's nemesis, Vishnu—much to his father's fury. One evening, just before sunset, the two stood on the porch of the palace and argued bitterly.

“I am the supreme being in this house,” railed Hiranyakashipu, “and outside this house as well! Where is your Vishnu?”

“He is everywhere, in everything,” said Prahlada, “and also beyond everywhere and beyond everything. He is in the firmament and in the depths, manifest and unmanifest.”

“Shut up!” roared his father, moving toward Prahlada with murderous rage. “Is he in this pillar, here?” And he struck one of the marble pillars which supported the porch's roof.

“He is, he was, and he will be,” said Prahlada.

Hiranyakashipu hurled his mace at the pillar, shattering it—and, oh! From the broken pillar there emerged an amazing, impossible figure: half-lion, half-man. This was Narasimha—Vishnu in a form neither human nor animal. Roaring much louder than Hiranyakashipu, the Lord seized him, jerking him off the ground. Squatting in the doorway, neither in nor out of the house, at twilight—neither day nor night—he flung Hiranyakashipu over his lap. Narasimha's powerful lion-claws ripped open his chest and belly, killing him neither with a weapon nor with a blow from human hands.

The Pose   

For simhasana, sit on your heels, place your hands on your knees, and lift your chest. (Or, in half or full lotus, shift your weight forward until your knees are on the floor, with your hands on the floor in front of you.) Stretch your fingers as if claws were shooting out the ends. Look up, focusing both eyes on the point between your eyebrows. Open your mouth wide, stre-e-etch your tongue, and roar. Do it again. Yes!

Benefits

This pose is said to relieve tension in the face and throat, to strengthen muscles in the front of the neck, and to help sore throats. For people who are shy about speaking up, or about looking silly in public, simhasana is a great practice for overcoming these obstacles.

Points for Practice

I learned this pose as a child, and most children I've taught it to have enjoyed the opportunity to roar and spread their claws. Like Prahlada, I encountered great opposition from my mother when I fell in love with yoga and began to practice seriously. Asana, meditation, and svadhyaya (scripture study) gave me tools for living and a way of perceiving the world that she did not understand. Have you encountered family resistance to your lifestyle choice, or to yoga practice? Have you ever felt the practice itself coming to your aid in dealing with a critical family member—whether that was an actual person, or the critic in your head?

Patanjali tells us, in Yoga Sutra 1:21, “Samadhi is near for those whose aspiration is steadfast.”

The story shows us that enlightenment, or divine grace, cannot be limited by conditions: when the time is right, it will reveal itself in unexpected, seemingly impossible ways. Hiranyakashipu couldn't be vanquished by man or beast, by day or night, inside or outside—but Prahlada's devotion could not go unrewarded, either. Patanjali tells us, in Yoga Sutra 1:21, “Samadhi is near for those whose aspiration is steadfast.”

As Hiranyakashipu himself points out, the benefits of a devoted practice are never lost. Father and son, in this story, both have strong practices over a long period of time. But what result did Hiranyakashipu seek? Power and control. What did Prahlada seek? Increased awareness of divine presence. Both got what they wanted. What do you want from your own practice?

Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>

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